Merrion Square Park, surrounded by beautiful Georgian houses, is one of my favourite of Dublin’s city centre parks. Known until recently as Archbishop Ryan Park, the heavy criticism of that Archbishop in a recent report on the abuse of children by the Catholic Church led to the renaming of the park.
This park was historically open only on a private basis to residents of the square, much like St. Stephen’s Green was prior to its opening to the public in 1880, at the expense of Lord Ardilaun of the Guinness family.
In the 1920s Merrion Square Park was considered as a location for the construction of the War Memorial Gardens, in honour of Irishmen who had died fighting in the First World War. Its proximity to the Dáil was one factor that stood in the way of any such plan however, with one Senator asking at the time if ‘the very heart of Dublin, under the very walls of the seat of Government’ was a suitable location for such a memorial, in the still-volatile political environment of the day. The site was later considered as a location for the construction of a new Catholic Cathedral in Dublin. It was reported in the media in May 1938 that the site had been “taken over” by the Archbishop of Dublin, with the Irish Independent referring to it in a report as “the site of Dublin’s new Catholic Cathedral”. It had been purchased some years previously by the church, for the tidy sum of £100,000. The Cathedral project never materialised however, leading to decades of debate on the future of the park. In 1944 for example Jim Larkin Jnr, son of the 1913 leader, asked in the Dáil in the park could be “made available for the use and enjoyment of the public or as a children’s playground”, but no attempts were made by the government to bring about such a situation.
In 1970, Sinn Féin and others launched protests against the status of the park, claiming that it was still open only to residents of the square who rented keys at the price of £10 per annum from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid. This fee was later disputed by the Catholic Church, who claimed the fee was just over £4 per annum. Archbishop McQuaid had strongly backed the original proposals to build a Cathedral on the site, but with that plan long scrapped and the park still in the ownership of the Catholic Church, the Archbishop’s decision to grant access only to those willing to pay for the pleasure of strolling through the park proved controversial. The first occupation of the park saw over 50 activists, including residents from the nearby Fenian Street and Merrion Square, breaching the gates of the park and proclaiming it a “People’s Park”. Boldly, Sinn Féin also distributed keys to the park from their offices at 30 Gardiner Place, leading to the locks of Merrion Square being changed on occasion, a costly annoyance for authorities as new keys had to be distributed.
Sinn Féin were heavily involved in the Dublin Housing Action Committee, active in the same period, a militant campaign against the inadequate housing on offer to working class Dubliners at the time. This movement had been involved in many political occupations, as well as squatting actions. The action around Merrion Square can be seen as part of a broader campaign over the ownership of the city. In July 1970, the same month the actions at Merrion Square Park began, 500 people attended a protest at the G.P.O on O’Connell Street against proposed legislation which would aim to tackle “forcible entry and occupation”. There was a widespread belief that the actions of housing activists in the city motivated the government to consider such legislation.
One resident of the park complained in a newspaper after the protest that “When Sinn Féin entered Merrion Square…they immediately began to play football across the tennis courts, thereby destroying the surface which has taken months of preparation for the tennis season.”
Beyond Sinn Féin, the private nature of the park attracted protest from others, including young messenger boys employed by the nearby E.S.B, who claimed that a letter had been sent by MacQuaid to their employer informing them they were no longer permitted to play football in the park! The boys mounted a protest outside of the park. The Labour Party also succeeded in gathering thousands of signatures for a petition calling for the parks opening.
A year on from the protests, it was reported that An Taisce were in discussion with the Archbishop of Dublin regarding the parks future, and the possibility of opening it to the broader public. The Catholic Church went to great lengths to insist this was of their own deciding, and not influenced by any protest.
Merrion Square itself saw very significant political violence in 1972 when a crowd laid siege to the British Embassy following Bloody Sunday. In The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party, a story is recounted by one OIRA member at the time who remembered attempting to blow the doors off the building, by placing explosives inside of coffins that students had carried to the embassy. After two further days of protest and disturbances outside the embassy, it was eventually burnt on 2 February 1972.
In April 1974 the park was handed over, and it was reported in the newspapers on the day after the opening of the park that “hundreds of children cheered when, for the first time in 200 years, the padlocks were removed from the gates of Merrion Square Park yesterday.” Today, the park is open to the public throughout the year, with several festivals hosted within it annually for the public to enjoy.